So many films these days try to compete for Oscar gold, which ultimately leaves many of these films in the dust. Even after investing a lot of money into marketing and Oscar campaigns, certain films just fail to reach larger audiences. This year’s biggest example of that appears to be A Monsters Call, which underwhelmed in its limited release and is now expanding to a nationwide audience.
Based on a novel by Patrick Ness (as well as originally conceptualized by Siobhan Dowd), the film follows Connor, a boy who is struggling with the news of his mothers terminal illness. In an effort to cope with this news, he is visited by a tree monster that promises to tell him three stories and reveal Connor’s true nightmare.
While it may not be the awards contender its studio believed it to be, A Monsters Call is one of the year’s most emotionally resonant pictures. Its a tough watch at times, but one that reaps a rewarding journey.
A Monsters Call in a lot of ways appeals to a younger demographic, but its the rare family film that does not condescend to its younger crowd. Compared to a lot of family films that depict simplistic good or bad characters, the characters and themes here are fittingly more complicated.
Brining this unique story to life is J.A. Bayona, whose unique visual style adds a lot to the movie. The tree monster’s stories are told through beautifully animated vignettes that are both wildly unique and arresting. Integrating a giant tree monster in a real world setting could have looked hokey, but the washed-out visual style is fitting to the movie’s grim tone.
Performance-wise, everyone brings their A-game to this material. Liam MacDougall gives a performance beyond his years as Connor, unlocking all the frustration and sadness that the character presents. He makes every struggle the character goes through feel so genuine and its easy to put yourself in his shoes. Felicity Jones steals every scene she is in as Connor’s dying mother, making what could have been just a simplistic psychical transformation so much more. These actors breath so much life into what could have been formulaic roles, as well as connecting to a deep sense of humanity.
Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness make for a perfect team, as the fantastical elements mesh seamlessly with this real-world story. Ness is one of the few writers who actually gets to adapt his own work, and it honestly should happen more often. The film’s exploration of grief and the complicated emotions it elicits is done with a new twist, but still connects on a personal level with audiences. This film left me in tears at several points, as it doesn’t pull any punches. At the same time, this film promotes optimism, with its simple, yet sweet ending leaving a strong emotional impact on me.
A Monsters Call is so close to reaching the league of classic family films, but has a few nagging issues holding it back. At times, the film can feel a bit too over-stuffed with characters and subplots. This is particularly the case with Sigourney Weaver’s character, who plays Connor’s rigged grandma. Despite both characters sharing quite a bit of running time, the audience gets no sense of why their dynamic is the way it is. The film also has a subplot involving a bully that felt fairly contrived compared to how grounded the rest of the film was.
Even with its stumbles, A Monsters Call is an emotionally rich family film that tackles its subject matter with a brave sincerity. Brining its story to life through raw performances and a unique fantasy element, this is sure to go down as one of the year’s most under appreciated flicks.